Sharon Guskin | 'It’s not a religious book, certainly; it’s a book that is raising these questions that are very universal'

Sharon Guskin | 'It’s not a religious book, certainly; it’s a book that is raising these questions that are very universal'

Do you believe in life after death?

The Forgetting Time (Mantle) begins with a mystery. Four-year-old Noah, a beloved child born to single mother and architect Janie after a one-night stand, is behaving strangely. The terrifying recurring nightmares and uncontrollable bouts of sobbing are distressing enough, but what really worries his mother are the extraordinary things that come out of his mouth. He wants to go home, he says, even though he is at home with Janie in their Brooklyn apartment. He often talks about things that he can’t possibly have knowledge of. But most devastating for Janie are his constant questions about when he can see his “other mother”.

Things come to a head at Noah’s nursery when Janie is questioned by staff after her son vividly describes being held under water until he blacks out. Desperate to find a solution to Noah’s problems, she takes him to see neurologists, psychologists and finally a $300-an-hour child psychiatrist, reputedly the best in his field, who is unwilling to give Noah a firm diagnosis — but suggests it might be early onset schizophrenia and offers to prescribe an antipsychotic medicine.

Horrified at the thought of medicating a four-year-old but knowing she has exhausted all other options, Janie searches Noah’s “symptoms” online and stumbles across the work of Dr Jerry Anderson. He is also a psychiatrist but one whose specific interest lies in researching the possibility of past lives in young children. Can Noah really be remembering a previous life? Janie is sceptical but, when Anderson meets Noah, he starts to draw out a remarkable tale; the four-year-old remembers being a nine-year-old called Tommy in very specific detail and he also remembers dying a violent death.

The Forgetting Time makes a good claim to be the near perfect book club read. It has the essential ingredient: a controversial theme guaranteed to provoke discussion among readers (a trait it shares with Jodi Picoult’s bestsellers, and Picoult has handily provided a blurb for the novel). Whether or not the reader believes in reincarnation, début author Sharon Guskin writes convincingly from three viewpoints: sceptic Janie; Dr Anderson (who hopes Noah’s case will crown his life’s work); and Tommy’s bereaved and grief-stricken mother Denise. The bonds between young children and their mothers are touchingly drawn.

Guskin’s interest in reincarnation began when a friend passed her a copy of Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Past Lives (1999). A non-fiction book written by a Washington Post reporter, it follows Dr Ian Stevenson (who was to become the direct inspiration for her character Dr Anderson), a psychiatrist based at the University of Virginia, as he travels the world investigating reports of around 3,000 children who claim to have lived before and who recalled specific details of their past lives.

As Guskin’s fictional tale unfolds, the chapters are interspersed with excerpts of real-life cases from another non-fiction title, Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives by Jim B Tucker (Stevenson’s protégé, who continues his research into past lives at the University of Virginia, where he is associate professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioural sciences). One excerpt recounts the case of a Sri Lankan girl who began talking about a previous life when she was two and half, describing this life so accurately that the “other” family happily accepted her as a reincarnation of their male relative; an incense seller who was killed in a traffic accident.

Guskin explains her decision to include these real-life cases within the novel “partly because I thought I can’t do justice to these real cases. They are so unbelievable. And I just wanted people to know that this is not just coming from my head. You can enjoy [my] book if you don’t believe in any of this . . . but I think it’s interesting that these cases exist and I felt it would add to the book to have the sense that these are real things out there. This isn’t a fantasy.”

A former writer of documentaries, most notably the film festival award-winning "Stolen" (about an audacious art heist at a Boston art gallery), Guskin can tell a story at a fair lick. She describes The Forgetting Time as “my third first novel”, following two earlier novels “that almost sold but didn’t”. She says: “With the previous books I was really trying to impress people and I think actually the failure to publish them ended up being really freeing for me. At a certain point I realised, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to publish this next book, but I’m going to write what I want to write’.”

Guskin’s literary models for The Forgetting Time included Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones—“it beautifully handled this other-worldly aspect while staying very grounded in daily life”—and she also cites Emma Donoghue’s Room, which she admires for the authentic voice of a young child. However, she chose not to write any of The Forgetting Time from Noah’s point of view apart from a very brief prologue: “I really wanted there to be some ambiguity in the book—is this real or is he crazy? In order to stay with Janie’s panicked and uncertain state of mind I couldn’t go too deep into Noah’s sense of things.”

Guskin describes The Forgetting Time as “a story of the lengths that a mother will go to for her child. I think that’s really the heart of it; the sceptical mother who undertakes this journey, leading her to places she never expected to go in order to help her son. How far would you go for your child? You’d just go as far as you could, basically.”

Intriguingly, over the six or so years Guskin spent working on the novel, she kept encountering people who had their own stories about children they knew who seemed to remember details of a previous life. “I think what I’ve been most gratified by is that the book raises questions for people. It’s not a book about answers. It’s not a religious book, certainly; it’s a book that is raising these questions that are very universal, about where our children come from and about what happens next. If certain things happen next, then what does that mean about how we live our lives?”

Picture: David Jacobs Photography